line.2 People are more creative, productive, committed, and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives. But it’s not just any sort of progress in work that matters. The first, and fundamental, requirement is that the work be meaningful to the people doing it. In our book and a recent Harvard Business Review article,3 we argue that managers at all levels routinely—and unwittingly—undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions. These include dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off project teams before work is finalized, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities for customers. But what about a company’s most senior leaders? What is their role in making—or killing—meaning at work? To be sure, as a high-level leader, you have fewer opportunities to directly affect the inner work lives of employees than do frontline supervisors. Yet your smallest actions pack a wallop because what you say and do is intensely observed by people down the line.4 A sense of purpose in the work, and consistent action to reinforce it, has to come from the top.
Four traps To better understand the role of upper-level managers, we recently dug back into our data: nearly 12,000 daily electronic diaries from dozens of professionals working on important innovation projects at seven North American companies. We selected those entries in which diarists mentioned upperor top-level managers—868 narratives in all. Qualitative analysis of the narratives highlighted four traps that lie in wait for senior executives. Most of these pitfalls showed up in several companies. Six of the seven suffered from one or more of the traps, and in only a single company did leaders avoid them. The existence of this outlier suggests that it is possible for senior executives to sustain meaning consistently, but that’s difficult and requires vigilance. This article should help you determine whether you risk falling into some of these traps yourself—and unknowingly dragging your organization into the abyss with you. We also offer a few thoughts on avoiding the problems, advice inspired by the actions and words of a senior leader at the one company that did so. We don’t claim to have all the answers. But we are convinced that executives who sidestep these traps reduce their risk of inadvertently draining meaning from the work of the people in their organizations. Those leaders also will boost the odds of tapping into the motivational power of progress— something surprisingly few do.
Published on May 24, 2012
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer Even incremental steps forward—small wins—boost what we call “inner work life”: the constant flow of emotio...